Friday, February 10, 2012

Seeing God within the Khaki Uniforms of Incarcerated Women

This semester I was to be taking my second PREP course at Drew Theological School. PREP stants for Partnership in Religion and Education in Prisons. It is a class taken, for women, at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, the only women's prison in New Jersey, in which half of the students are "outside" students from Drew and half of the students are "inside" students, inmates at the prison. I had hoped to write more about the class I took last year, Race, Ethics, and Women's Lives with Dr. Traci West. What follows is a reflection on my experience last year in observance of Black History Month and in honor of the the class I was supposed to take this semester, Our Earth/Land is God's (Property, Nation, Environment) with Dr. Otto Maduro, which has been canceled due to Dr. Maduro's health. I pray for blessings on him and those women at Edna Mahan who I will miss this semester.

These are my first impressions from my first day at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility:
beautiful women. So welcoming and warm. Dark, sure, but in a khaki kind of way. Ok, so that may not make sense: I just mean I was expecting dim lighting and heavy gates and stuff, not a minimum security, mundane-looking sort of education building, and these khaki uniforms. Dark in a sterile, beige kind of way.

A woman at the gate saying, "Sharing isn't caring here," reminding one of the women not to share her skittles. My fear that I had forgotten to wear a bra without underwire that they would make me leave in the car during class.

And then sitting in this room, going around the circle, getting to know one another. Just feeling so overwhelmed with the feeling of awe of these women, and pain that I would be leaving to go outside and they wouldn't. They told us how they do work but usually don't get paid more than eighty some cents a day, and they have to pay for shampoo, and even good quality pads and tampons (they are given pads, but they are so bad that instead of Always, they call them Nevers). And then going to sit down next to one of the women and seeing pictures of her children. Oh God.

This kind of random journal entry is the one I keep coming back to when I try to articulate my experience taking a class in Edna Mahan Correctional Facility. The words are scattered, but the entry is followed by a list of names I cannot include here for confidentiality. And those names make me remember the faces of those women, the sound of their voices, their jokes, the taste of the juice boxes and off-brand cookies (the kinds your find in senior centers, hospitals, and food banks)they would share with the "outside" students.

One week, we talked about breast cancer and heard a story from an inside woman about her friend. In Edna Mahan, there is a maximum side and a minimum side secuirty to the prison. Our class was in minimum security, but each woman serves almost half her sentence, no matter what she has been convicted of, in max. This particular woman had already served her time in max, but heard one of her friends had cancer. She cried when she told us. She wondered if anyone was taking care of her friend, and revealed a plan to do something bad so she would get sent back to max. Her mother begged her not to, she said, but you could hear the desperation in her voice, the pain. The helplessness.

We talked about intimate partner violence and heard story after story from inside and outside women about violence they had faced. And then the woman sitting next to me spoke up. She was the first woman in New Jersey to use the battered woman's defense in court, having killed her partner when he threatened her son. She must have been pregnant at the time of her trial, given the age of her daughter and the amount of time she had been imprisoned. And again, there was pain, helplessness, violent frustration in her voice. But there was also survival there, too: the firece strength of being alive.

There is so much emotion that comes up for me when I try to write about this experience, which is why it has taken me almost a year to write about it, and even now I would not, not yet, but I want to be a part of this conversation on the prison system in the USA. The church does not talk about it enough, despite the fact that so many of our communities, particularly poor communities, immigrant communities, and communities of color, are torn apart by it. One in three black men will be incarcerated. Prisons are built based on the number of third grade-age boys of color in particular communities. We live in a country in which bankers can steal people's homes from them with impunity but people can get life in prison for nonviolent drug crimes (see this Democracy Now! interview focusing on a new documentary about the so-called war on drugs). And these women who I sat next to in class, these beautiful people...

At the beginning of January, The United Methodist Board of Pensions and Health Benefits announced it would divest from "companies that derive more than 10 percent of revenue from the management and operation of prison facilities" (which OnFire and UM Kairos Response's Emily McNeill touched on in an important blog post here). This is an important start to the conversation around the prison industrial complex, but it falls short. We need a critical United Methodist voice for prison abolition, for alternatives to caging women like those I met in class in whose faces I saw Christ as they shared their orange juice boxes and cookies as though they were serving communion.

So, the first step in raising this voice is educating yourselves and your faith communities. For more information on the Prison Industrial Complex, start at Critical Resistance, "a national grassroots organizion committed to ending society's use of prisons and policing as an answer to social problems." And important books to start with are Angela Davis' classic Are Prisons Obsolete? and Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.


Shannon Sullivan is a seminary student at Drew in Madison, New Jersey, and is pursuing ordination in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. She is also a member of the OnFire leadership team. She blogs at You'll Never Guess What the Heathens Did Today.

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